In the seasons of life I have had more than my share of summers.
A long run of sunny days and adventurous nights filled with lucky stars, uninterrupted by great personal calamity, rewarding in ways I could not have imagined in those formative years on the Great Plains. Our eldest daughter, Jennifer, reflecting her training as an emergency room physician, was along for the ride, but she worried.
"Dad," she would say, "we've never had anything go really wrong in our family. I wonder if we could handle it."
We were about to find out.
In February 2013, I turned seventy-three, or, more accurately, blew through the birthday, ignoring the actuarial truths that I was now in a mortality zone defined by age. What, me? After all, I spent the beginning of the seventy-third year biking hard through Chile and Argentina with some contemporaries. In the spring, I had flown to Africa to report on Nelson Mandela's final days and to accompany my wife, Meredith, to Malawi, where she has worked with a women's cooperative to establish a thriving business producing canned tomatoes.
We finished up at a lodge in Zimbabwe, bumping through the bush on wildlife excursions and, for Meredith, morning horseback rides. I started the day with swimming exercises, hoping to relieve what had become a persistent lower back pain.
I attributed it to long plane rides and an active lifestyle. If it didn't get better I planned to see a renowned orthopedist when I returned to New York, a sports medicine doc who, over the years, had treated me for similar ailments after a summer of rock climbing, backpacking, trekking, long-distance running, and bushwhacking to remote mountain lakes.
Probably require some therapy, I thought, never considering it could be anything more than an overexercised back. The conceit of a long, lucky life is that bad things happen to others. Jennifer's cautionary line about whether we could handle misfortune was provocative, and yet it seemed more of a group therapy subject than reality in our family.
Not for the first time, I was wrong, but in early summer I had no idea what was to come. I was determined to work through the steady, nagging pain and spend July and August on the trout waters of Montana.
That New York orthopedist, who's a longtime friend and familiar with my physical activities, ordered a conventional spinal X ray and, after examining it, reported that apart from some expected thinning of a lower-level disc no major anomalies showed up. He recommended more morning stretching exercises and over-the-counter pain relievers.
I happily plunged into my fishing schedule but then, inexplicably, took two hard falls, one on a rocky passage across my Montana home stream and one while in a boat on the Missouri River. What the hell, I thought, is this what happens when you hit seventy-three?
The back pain continued, resisting what I hoped would be the therapeutic effects of more stretching, Tylenol, massages, and limited golf and biking.
Besides, we had more to worry about in our extended family. Jennifer called to report that her mother-in-law, Lynne Fry, had been hospitalized with acute abdominal pain. Jennifer and her husband, Allen Fry, a radiologist, were on a second honeymoon when they got the call, and Jennifer immediately said that it didn't look good. They arrived at the hospital to hear the diagnosis: Lynne had a massive tumor on her pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is particularly lethal. Three weeks later she was gone.
Lynne was seventy-five, a small-town school librarian who had moved to the San Francisco area to be near our shared granddaughters. Meredith and I had an easy relationship with Lynne and admired how she managed her life after the death of her husband. She became a competitive ballroom dancer and took cruises with a companion she met on the dance floor. Her life was as organized as a Dewey decimal system card file in a community library.
When pancreatic cancer struck she accepted it without a whine or a whimper. Her apartment, books, and personal effects were quickly put in order for family members. She checked into hospice with the help of Jennifer, who as a physician is working hard to raise awareness of making the right decisions, for emotional and financial reasons, at the end of life.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers that worried me as I passed into my seventies. It's a lightning strike. It hits without warning and almost always kills. I've had five friends die of it, quickly, including the New York Times columnist Bill Safire.
I saw him at a Washington event in March 2009, cheerful and full of pithy observations. By September of that year he was dead.
From A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope by Tom Brokaw. Copyright 2015 by Tom Brokaw. Excerpted by permission of Random House.